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Penguin Epics : Sagas and Myths of the Northmen Paperback – 4 May 2006
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In a land of ice, great warriors search for glory. When a dragon threatens the people of the north, only one man can destroy the fearsome beast. Elsewhere, a mighty leader gathers a court of champions, including a noble warrior under a terrible curse. The Earth's creation is described; tales of the gods and evil Frost Giants are related; and the dark days of Ragnarok foretold. This is a journey into a realm of legend, where heroes from an ancient age do battle with savage monsters, and every man must live or die by the sword.
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It is right that the Penguin Epics collection includes sagas. These are after all some of the finest literary contributions the world has known. They tell the tales of various Nordic peoples whose beliefs thrived in a known world otherwise in the firm grip of Christianity. One of the troubling points about the sagas though is there are so many parts to the stories that have clearly fallen through the gaps. Compiling the full tale of these great peoples is difficult. The Penguin Epics edition shows how difficult it is. The idea of brinigng three stories together in one as separate snippets makes the holes too large and takes comprehension away.
The best part of the content is the final section. The section drawn from the magnificent Prose Edda is a snippet of something truly awe-inspiring. The introduction to the beliefs surrounding Odin and an adventure including Thor as well as a description of th events at the culmination of Ragnarok are all really good reads individually even if together they do not show anywhere near the full Ragnarok Cycle picture. This edition has a useful approach in providing translations of Proper Nouns in several cases where the name has a literal meaning. This approach really helps the flow and readability.
The other two entries are not anywhere near as impressive. The section from the Volsungsaga is a bit weird to read in the Penguin Epics context. The previous book in the Penguin Epics collection is Siegfried's Murder so there is seemingly unnecessary repitition by having Sigurd's tale here. The story is also not as well told because it is in snippet form. An odd editorial choice.
The saga of King Hrolf is a much weaker rendtition of Nordic story-telling than the Prose Edda contribution. The morality of might is ever-present and there is little subtlety of character. The only really intriguing aspect is the involvement of a Sami queen which speaks to a deeper relationship with those northern nomads than is popularly imagined. The storytelling of Hrolf's saga is generally unimpressive. It reveals little about the people involved or their lives other than the power of arms and the evilness of witchcraft. Without the fuller context it is hard to become engaged in the tales of Hrolf and his people.
A better editorial selection might well have been to draw exclusively from Prose Edda as that part of this edition is excellent. Penguin Epics XVI is not of the same order as many of its predecessors but anyone it is a part of the collection and does include parts of some mighty sagas.
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Translated by Jesse L. Byock
Consider this rendition of these Sagas as a light, low calorie beer. If you have never drank a real full bodied beer or ale before, you might consider this to be o.k., it looks like beer, it say's beer on the outside, it kind of tastes like I thought beer should taste like however, it in fact bares little or no resemblance to the real thing. The same can be said of this compilation. The editors have taken Jesse L. Byock's excellent translations and piecemealed them together in a way that could not have been conceived by Victor Frankenstein. In, "The Saga of the Volsungs", over half of the chapters in the Saga are omitted. Included in the omissions is the betrayal and death of Sigurd! Come on all you good editors at Penguin, you did not include the demise of the primary character of the entire Saga, what's up with that? Similarly over half of , "The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki", is missing as well as great swaths of Sturluson's, "Prose Edda".
I think the thing that I found the most annoying about this work is that nowhere on the front or back cover or anywhere in the books description was there any indication given by the publisher that these stories were abridged and incomplete. I would not have bought the book had I known this, (hummm...., I may be on to something here).The only hint that is given that the stories are not complete is in the last paragraph of the, "Note", (the book does not even have a proper introduction), I quote, "The selections in this current book are translated directly from the Old Norse and serve as an "INITIATION" to the sagas and myths of the Northmen". Well, that was clear as mud. Additionally, there are absolutely no footnotes or explanations in the entire book regarding anything.
In summation, don't waste your money on this work thinking your getting a bargain. I recommend, "The Saga of the Volsungs" Jesse L. Byock, U. of California Press, "The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki", Jesse L. Byock, Penguin Classics. Snorri Sturluson's, "Edda", can be found in many forms. It has been done by numerous publishers and translators. I suggest trying several, include some of the older Victorian Era ones as well as the more contemporary ones, it will give you a more well-rounded feel for the work. Use your mind to decide which is better.
Spence The Elder
"Sic gorgiamus allos subjectatos nunc"
I'm glad I only borrowed this title from the library and didn't purchase it.